Doing away with the top-down hierarchical approach to business may be the best way to improve it
Good businesses are about products and services. Great businesses are always about people. No matter what industry you are in, what problem you are solving, or which customers you serve, the core of every high-performing business is an excellent team.
Here’s one case study. Back In Motion Health Group, which I launched in the early 2000s, is Australia’s only franchised physiotherapy network. Over the last two decades it has enjoyed excellent growth, from start-up to becoming ANZ’s largest allied health group. This success is largely a function of its innovative approach to people and teams, and works whether you’re a business of five or 5,000.
Early growth was driven by entrepreneurial spirit, agile thinking and extraordinary courage. As the company expanded to have a national footprint, the traditional top-down linear hierarchy of board, executive management and support staff created unnecessary barriers to getting stuff done. So we created ONEteam.
We abandoned the top-down hierarchical model in favour of our own innovative design. It was a model that revolved around cross-functional collaboration, shared authority and peer accountability. Our model wasn’t flat, matrix or pyramidal – it was spherical. We promoted leadership over management, embracing principles of self-actualisation that were practised in real time. As a result, our people got better and we got faster.
Here are five ways to transform your business using elements of this model:
- Rethink Identity
Deeply reflect on who you are as an organisation and who you want to become. Far too few teams know why they exist, or what they are here to create. They might have individual champions on their teams, but they do not function like champion teams. At Back In Motion we rethought the firm’s identity, including its mission, purpose, vision, strategy and values. We sought conviction and calling, and not just a sound business plan. We had to feel it deep in our gut. We spent over a year soul-searching our intention, ensuring it was a shared experience. The DNA of the team was made clear. Without it, we would have been guilty of continued frenetic activity at risk of little accomplishment.
- Rethink culture
All organisations have a culture – the one they set… or simply the one they get. We wanted to build ours on purpose. We encouraged respectful disagreement, innovative thinking and free speech to extract real opinions. In time, and with practice, the cultural attributes became natural, even habitual.
Once we refreshed our value proposition … using our new model, we recovered speed, performance and impact
- Rethink titles
Nobody lost their jobs because of our restructure, but we all lost our business titles. Formal designations evaporated, and business cards were binned. Titles are so inadequate to describe what we do as part of a high-functioning team. They are often ambiguous, incomplete and self-limiting. Workplace titles are just words. Words can carry enormous power, or, if misunderstood, be entirely powerless.
Titles also put people in category boxes. For us, what they implied was more about what people couldn’t do than what they should do. We needed greater possibilities. Colleagues needed to be encouraged to make their best contribution based on what they were excellent at and what they loved. This rarely falls into the neat confines of another organisation’s definition of what a line manager is or what a qualification should allow. Opt for genuine peership over artificial platforms of illegitimate hierarchy. Distribute authority to those who are deserving, capable and accountable. It wasn’t a system of equal work contribution, but it should be a system of fair reward for shared effort.
- Rethink your position description
Then comes the dismantling of pro forma job descriptions. If there is no need for contrived titles, then rethink the verbose corporate parlance that makes up most position templates. We created nimble role profiles that evolved in real time and clearly articulated people’s authorities (privileges) and accountabilities (responsibilities) as they adapted to the organisation’s needs and opportunities. As a result, we moved decision- making to the frontline of our organisation to people who understood what our health clients and workforce really needed.
- Rethink performance assessment
People don’t want to be measured and evaluated by a few people at the top. They prefer a regime in which their process becomes as important as their results. The opinions and observations of their peers have to count for as much as those of their supervisors. And the supportive contribution someone might make to another’s overall result should not be overlooked in an otherwise overly simplistic assessment. Remember, you get more of what you celebrate. Measure and manage the holistic attributes of your team culture to lead a workplace revolution.
We created modified balanced scorecards and displayed screens in our offices that highlighted the key activities promoting our mission. We weight-shifted our bonus systems to focus on team achievements above individual excellence. Performance reviews became live roundtable experiences that sought to promote our people with constructive input and personal acknowledgement in equal measure.
Through use of our new structure, we have been able to boast about some wonderful achievements. We are an award-winning international franchise network in the coveted allied health sector. We have a mature domestic footprint in most states of Australia and have launched in New Zealand, with burgeoning opportunities in North America and the UK. And we are about to apply our model in new health markets as we integrate and synthesise our learnings.
All businesses go through seasons of review and reset. Once we refreshed our value proposition, workplace culture and organisational workflow using our new model, we recovered speed, performance and impact. Mostly, we became a team we were proud to belong to, living out our convictions with congruence and fulfilment. We will keep living, working and evolving ONEteam as a leadership model. It will change, as we do. But you, too, can harness its simple elements to your own advantage.
Jason T Smith is an award-winning entrepreneur, thought leader, and author of the new book Outside-in Downside-up Leadership. He is the founder of the Back In Motion Health Group, the Iceberg Leadership Institute and the SOS Health Foundation. For more information, visit www.jasontsmith.com.au.